Sunday, March 23, 2014

Homily for Oculi - The Third Sunday in Lent (Lent 3)

Luke 11:14-28; Ephesians 5:1-9; Exodus 8:16-24

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
“There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways.” So begins the ancient Christian document dated to the end of the first or the beginning of the second century known as The Didache or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. The Didache goes on to say, “The way of life is this: first, you shall love the God who made you; second, your neighbor as yourself, and whatever you would not have done to you, do not do to another.” As you can hear, the Didache is not a novel instruction, but simply a reiteration of the Great Commandment to love God and to love your neighbor. What is striking about the Didache, however, is how it denotes strongly, and immediately, that there are only two possible ways – one way that leads to life, and one way that leads to death, and that there is a great difference and distinction between the two ways.
But this distinction is not novel either. Indeed, it is a continuous doctrine throughout the Holy Scriptures. In his farewell address to the children of Israel in Deuteronomy 30:19, Moses said, “Today, I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants.” The same two ways are found in Jeremiah 21:8 and in Jesus’ words from Matthew 7:13-14, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Likewise, in today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Indeed, when it comes to faith, life, and salvation, there is only one way, Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, apart from whom no one can come to the Father.
After the fall, all humanity, all creation was plunged into sin and the way that leads to death. It was God’s gracious and merciful work that set man on the way of life once again. God clothed our First Parents’ nakedness by shedding innocent blood, pointing to the sacrifice that He Himself would make, shedding the blood of His Son Jesus as a sacrificial Lamb to take away the sins of the world. The entire Old Testament is the account of those were called off of the way of death to walk in the way of life, and those who, by their own fallen will and decision chose to walk the way of death apart from and against the LORD. God set His people apart, He sanctified them and made them holy as He is holy. They were not to be like the pagan nations that surrounded them. Even when He caused them to go down into Egypt, the LORD set His people apart as holy and His own.
We see the LORD in action in the account of the Ten Plagues. Pharaoh’s magicians were able to mimic a number of the plagues initially, however, soon they were unable to copy the works of the LORD done through His servants Moses and Aaron. Thus, we see not only that the devil is a liar and a deceiver, but that, ultimately, His power is limited and controlled by the LORD Himself. Pharaoh’s magicians had to confess, “This is the finger of God.” The “finger of God” is typically understood to be an anthropomorphism for the Holy Spirit. In today’s Gospel, Jesus claims to exorcise demons by the “finger of God” as well. After the plague of gnats, which Pharaoh’s magicians could not mimic and copy, the LORD began to make a clear distinction between His people Israel and Pharaoh and the Egyptians. In the next plague, the plague of flies, the houses of the Egyptians would be filled with flies while the houses of the Israelites dwelling in the land of Goshen would be spared that the Egyptians would know that the LORD dwelt in the midst of His people.
All of the Levitical laws served to set God’s people apart as holy and distinct from the pagan nations surrounding them. The LORD’s people were not to participate in the activities and ceremonies of the pagan nations: They were not to tattoo, scar, or pierce their bodies in any way; they were not eat the blood of animals; they were not to worship images carved from wood, bone, or stone; they were to worship one God, the only God, and serve Him only. This sanctification, this setting apart for holiness, continues in the New Testament Church as St. Paul writes to the Ephesians in our Epistle: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children. […] sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, […] Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, […] but let there be thanksgiving, […] for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light, (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true).
Jesus had just cast out a demon from a man who couldn’t speak. You would think that people would view this as a good thing, right? Instead they accused Jesus of casting out the demon by Beezelbul, that is, by the power of Satan. Jesus effectively called his accusers on the ridiculousness of their thinking saying, “Excuse me, but is a mute man regaining his speech a good thing or an evil thing? Is a demon being cast out of a man a good thing or an evil thing? You agree with me that it is a good thing, right? Then, let me ask you this – Does Satan work for good? Does Satan cast his own demons out? Would Satan work to release this man from Satan? No, of course not! Satan would be working against himself. Therefore, I say to you, every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?”
There is a way of life and healing and forgiveness and all that goes with it, and there is a way of death, which is any other way. If Satan’s kingdom is being overrun, if his palace is being plundered – and it most certainly is – then you may know that the kingdom of God has come upon you. In fact, Jesus is the King, and He brings the kingdom with Him. When He casts out demons, when He heals, when He raises the dead, when He opens ears to hear and eyes to see, when He baptizes, forgives sins, and restores life, Satan’s palace is being plundered and God’s kingdom is being established. Satan’s kingdom and household fall about him and there is nothing he can do.
When Peter answered Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” with his great confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus praised Peter saying, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Then Jesus said to Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Contrary to our Roman Catholic brothers’ and sisters’ belief, the rock upon which Christ promised to build His Church was not the man Peter, but rather that man’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living  God.” Moreover, Christians often misunderstand Jesus’ meaning when He said “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Too often Christians think this means that hell will not win over the Church. While, this is most certainly true, that is not precisely what Jesus says. Rather, Jesus says that hell will suffer and fall under the attack of Christ’s Church. It is the defensive gates of hell that will not prevail against the Church. Gates don’t attack, they defend and keep out. Jesus is saying that the gates of hell will not be able to stand against the advance of the church, the kingdom of God. And that is precisely what Jesus demonstrated in His ministry: “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Blessed are those who are not offended by Him.
One of the ways in which the kingdom of God is established and Satan is cast out is through Holy Baptism. When a child is baptized, Satan’s palace is plundered just as it was when Jesus exorcised the demon from the mute man in today’s Gospel. This is why the baptismal liturgy has traditionally included an exorcism in these words: “Depart thou unclean spirit and make way for the Holy Spirit, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” Yes, in Holy Baptism, Satan is cast out and the soul is reclaimed for God’s kingdom. This is why Baptism is no light or trivial matter. It is not a mere ritual performed by men, but it is the “finger of God,” the Holy Spirit, in action.
However, as Jesus warns in today’s Gospel, the Holy Spirit must take up residence in the person from whom Satan has been exorcised, or else he will return, and the fate of that person will be worse than it was previously. This is why Holy Baptism does not work ex opera operato, it is not a work that is efficacious in itself, but it must be accompanied by faith in order to benefit a person. In baptism, the Holy Spirit creates faith, but faith is sustained and strengthened by the Word of God. Thus, when a woman in the crowd cried out to Jesus saying, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” Jesus replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.”
When you are reclaimed for the kingdom of God through faith in Jesus Christ, you become His servant in His kingdom. Christ has called you to follow Him in the way of life. You remain in that way by keeping His Word and receiving His gifts. But, it is a narrow way, and broad and easy is the way that leads to death. You must take care not to stray off the way. Yes, the Lord will keep you and protect you; staying on the way is not a work you do, but straying most certainly is. You belong to Christ, but Satan, your enemy, will lie to you and try to deceive you that you are not Christ’s or that Christ is an unfair master. This is why you must keep God’s Word, hear, learn, and inwardly digest it. This is why you must received the Lord’s gifts regularly for forgiveness, the strengthening of your faith, life and salvation, and protection from the lies and deceits of your enemy. It is the Holy Spirit who keeps you in faith, but if you resist Him and stray from Him, over time your heart will grow cold and will harden. How much time? Only God knows, but it is not prudent or faithful to put the Lord to the test. Therefore, He gives you this promise: Remain in Him, and He will remain in you. He will never leave or forsake you. May your eyes be ever turned toward the LORD, for He will pluck you out the net of your enemy, and He will keep you in His kingdom until He can crown you with eternal life.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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